Hay supply nears rock bottom as drought tightens grip
EIGHT months ago, Biloela grower John Heid had sheds full of hay he couldn't get rid of. Now, for the first-time ever, the second-generation grower is seeing his hay travel interstate.
Drought has struck the eastern states of Australia and most recently, in New South Wales. As the hay farms down there are drying up, NSW farmers are buying the produce in Queensland.
John has been selling loads of hay to Longreach in western Queensland and to Tamworth and Dubbo in New South Wales, and all the places in between.
Having lived on the property 15kms north of Biloela all his life and his father Jack before him, John has never had requests for his hay from over the border.
"New South Wales got dry first, they cleaned a lot of hay up from Toowoomba and they are coming up further and further north," he said.
John grows predominately hay and lucerne, which is used as fodder for cattle when there is no grass.
At Christmas, he had hundreds of bales sitting in his sheds because it was raining and there was no demand for the hay.
Now, he has bales he could sell three times over.
While John normally sells most of his hay in the winter months, the demand is getting out of control.
His phone constantly rings off the hook with farmers looking for hay as Australia faces a hay-shortage.
"I already have the next cut sold and I haven't even cut it," he said.
John expects to be out of product in two weeks, while he waits for the next batch to grow.
"Eventually there is going to be no hay anywhere if it doesn't rain, that is going to be a big problem," he said.
"Nearly everyone is going to run out of hay for the first time ever.
"It is going to be devastating."
John irrigates his crops with water pumped from Kroombit Dam.
As of Wednesday, Kroombit was sitting at 51.8 per cent.
At the end of last month, SunWater announced a 100 per cent allocation for John.
It means he will have six months of irrigation and then he will pump from the bore, which is poorer water quality.
On his 200 hectare property, John has around 45 hectares irrigated on two pivots growing lucerne and hay.
The hay is planted in Autumn and lasts around three years with eight cuts per year on average.
Some cuts are better than others and the summer crops grow a lot better than the winter ones.
"Through winter, yields aren't the best compared to summer," John said.
The paddocks are currently producing half of what they usually do, due to the lack of rain, which leads to the soil deficiency and other issues.
The dry for John means he has to use a lot more power and water allocation to support the plants.
It has been mostly dry since February when he saw some good storms.
"Power costs are very expensive and a bit of rain to help grow the plant is a benefit to me as well," he said.
The cost of making on bale of hay in summer is so low compared to making one in winter, as the plant grows a lot slower.
Despite being less of a crop and not as good quality, they are still watered, cut, raked and baled.
John has to change his prices to reflect the extra electricity, water charges and fertiliser.
And the constant sky-rocketing rise of electricity over the last six years has affected the business in a significant way.
"It's the costs of production, no rain means we have to water from start to finish for the whole year," he said.
"I am watering for 12 months here, it brings the cost up.
"We don't go out there to sting people."
To try and get a better harvest, John's farm manager Silvia Tramontin is working on a fertiliser program - another cost.
It is hoped it will increase the yields.
There is often a misconception when you drive past the lucerne farm that the farm is doing well, as they are all green.
And if you look closely, the crop can be patchy, bugs may have gotten into the plant and there is fungi on the leaves.
"It takes a lot of hard work to get it like this," John said.
But he said he isn't doing as bad as some other farmers in the Central Queensland region.
Last week, The Morning Bulletin reported Central Highlands growers were given a six per cent water allocation out of Fairbairn Dam as it sits at 20 per cent.
It was lowest allocation the region had seen in a decade.
John shook his head and was glad he wasn't facing their allocation.
"It's just like turning the tap off for them," he said.